Istanbul ushers in a new chapter for the arts

Turkey's contemporary arts fair comes to a close, as new institutions gear up for opening

“This is a new Contemporary Istanbul, for a new era,” said the fair’s founder Ali Gureli at the launch of the 16th iteration of the art fair, as sailboats breezed past on the water. One of a number of Istanbul cultural projects, the fair was held at former Ottoman shipyards on the Golden Horn inlet, right at the sea's edge.

The setting was spectacular: the Golden Horn was a trading post for the city in the Greek, Roman and Ottoman eras. The booths took up residence in a brick-lined former torpedo factory; drinks for a glittering line of VIPs took place where the ships used to dock.

This year's event opened in a city that is making its cultural profile a major priority, with a number of new and renovated institutions opening over the next year.

Off Istanbul’s central Taksim Square is the renovated Ataturk Cultural Centre, a 1960s-era landmark that hosts a variety of cultural activities in a concert hall, a smaller performance venue and now, new galleries. It has been refurbished by Murat Tabanlioglu, son of the building’s original architect Hayati Tabanlioglu.

“This is, of course, much different than all the other projects I have done," says Murat, who researched his father’s famous designs for the centre in three exhibitions that began even before he was awarded the project. “It’s in the centre of Istanbul and an important building for the people. And I wanted to keep all the materials: the aluminium facade, the stone coming from all parts of Turkey.”

The renovation has been done to high specifications. A recording studio is clothed in warm oak; a new library has bright wooden shelves stretching three floors up; and the new cantilevered gallery space, where a car park once stood, opens to views on to Taksim. The concert venue, in a quintessentially 1960s flourish, sits encased within a fantastical floating orb the colour of dark merlot. The cultural centre is scheduled to open on Friday, October 29, on the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey’s founding.

Near the Golden Horn development, known as Tersane, is a second complex of museums also set to open over the next few years. The area of Galataport will comprise the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art designed by Renzo Piano, and the new home for the Museum of Painting and Sculpture, with a 19th and 20th-century collection administered by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. When these buildings are complete, developers hope that locals and tourists will be able to take a boat from Galataport around the Horn to Tersane. This latter district will be as much a luxury development as a cultural one: it will host four hotels, a residential and business district, space for galleries, and two more museums.

As the pace of development makes clear, Istanbul’s investment in art and culture is part of a larger municipal development and gentrification drive across the city. Since the early 2000s, when Istanbul emerged as a global contemporary art hub, the art scene's fortunes have wavered. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 and ISIS attacks in 2016 and 2017 dealt a heavy blow, with many foreigners leaving. And current members of the art scene remain sceptical of how art is being leveraged as a tool for economic development – and indeed how, in the politically partisan city, many of the new ventures are going ahead under government support.

Contemporary Istanbul, which ended on Sunday, has international ambitions: Gureli says he wants to make the fair into one of the top 10 globally. That will mean changing long-set collecting patterns. According to German art historian Marcus Graf, a longtime resident of the city, contemporary art has only begun to be collected over the past 15 years, and most collectors still focus on artists from Turkey.

At this year's edition of Contemporary Istanbul, the majority of the 47 galleries were Turkish, with Pi Artworks, Galerist and Oktem Aykut offering particularly strong booths. The largest proportion of international galleries came from Iran, with Marlborough Gallery and Konig Galerie also joining, the latter in collaboration with Turkish gallery Pilevneli.

Most Turkish galleries brought Turkish artists, and the price point for the works was low across the board. Marlborough brought some big international names, such as Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois, but in prints and drawings, as they had been advised to keep to works below $20,000. The weak Turkish lira also slowed some headwinds, particularly for international galleries, but most of the trading activity seemed to be happening among Turkish collectors and galleries anyway.

Women Turkish artists put forward some of the best works, interestingly all in adaptations of traditional crafts. Elif Uras at Galerist made an installation of ceramics showing women in action – cooking a meal, talking on the phone, multitasking – in an attempt to redress the historical absence of women represented in pottery. At Istanbul ’74, Belkis Balpinar, an artist from Bodrum who works in craft, showed what she calls art kilims: textiles with thick, abstract forms woven into the hand-spun wool.

Gulay Semercioglu, at Pi Artworks, also exhibited a renovation of Turkish weaving, with one of her signature works in woven industrial wire, accompanied by a suite of drawings showing traditional motifs from Anatolian textiles, such as the repeated curve of ram’s horns.

Following the event’s sub-theme of women’s artwork, the exhibition I – You – They at the private foundation Mesher was the highlight of the city’s offerings: the fruits of a three-year project looking into Turkish women who were born between 1850 and 1950 and worked as artists. Curator Deniz Artun’s research turned up 127 women, of whom she had only known of a third, she said.

Many of these artists produced intimate portraits of family members and acquaintances; others painted floral arrangements, a typically feminine subject matter; still others documented their experiences of motherhood. Even within the narrow confines of what women were expected or allowed to paint, the exhibition reveals a stylistic richness and variety. And among the canonised artists there were surprises: Artun unearthed a stained-glass work of a mother and child by Fahrelnissa Zeid, shedding light on a little-known medium in the great painter’s oeuvre. Zeid, says scholar Adila Laidi-Hanieh, experimented with stained-glass works late in her career in Jordan, even bringing down a stained-glass artist from the UK to teach the women at the school she ran in Amman. But many of the students disliked working with fire and melted lead, and the take-up remained limited. Today, most of these stained-glass works are at Darat al Funun in Jordan, with a few in Turkey in private collections, such as the undated Mother and Child now at Mesher.

Turkish painter and opera singer Semiha Berksoy was also a standout in the show. Her inimitable, rough style of painting turns even the most benign encounter into an affair laced with drama. The faces in My Mother and I (1974) are rendered with little embellishment, but they still communicate filial independence and maternal solicitude – that unbreakable dyad of mother/daughter relations. Similarly, the painting My Mother the Painter Fatma Saime (1965) was based on a small photograph showing her mother with a tasteful brooch on her lapel; Berksoy’s depiction turned this into a bright, showy flower, a display of beauty and extravagance so eye-catching it nearly distracts from the grave, skeletal rendering of Saime’s face.

Mesher's exhibition was a reminder of the extraordinary history of modern and contemporary art in Istanbul, as the city moved from being an Ottoman capital to a site that continues to play a role of crossroads between East and West. Today's cultural additions and renovations come at a febrile time for the members of its art scene, who navigate a complex political and social territory. But what stood out most in Istanbul was the maturity of conversations and art-making on a national scale – even as it gears up to become an international player.

Updated: October 11th 2021, 8:23 AM